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Southern Equine Expo


Article and photos by Allison A. Rehnborg

In late February, 2015 Winter Storm Octavia succeeded in icing roads, freezing stock tanks, and shutting down schools and businesses all over Tennessee. It also brewed up some of the worst cases of cabin fever we’ve ever seen. So when the Southern Equine Expo opened its doors on February 20, we couldn’t wait to bundle up and head over to the Tennessee Miller Coliseum in Murfreesboro for a weekend all about horses. Now in its third year, the Expo has grown by leaps and bounds, adding a colt-starting and trail competitions, but its primary focus continues to be lectures, clinics, and hands-on demos – all put on by renowned equine professionals.

This year’s Expo featured headliner Dan James, a world-class Australian horse trainer with a penchant for riding bareback, bridle less, and backward. Other clinicians included vaquero horsemen Mark and Miranda Lyon, multiple World Champion Stephanie Lynn, and mounted shooter Dianne Lipham, as well as local professionals like MTSU Horse Science professor Dr. Holly Spooner and equine chiropractor Dr. Alex Vear of Gallatin, Tennessee.

With multiple sessions going on at any given time, the three-day event overflowed with learning opportunities. We can’t provide you with a play-by-play of the entire Expo, but here’s an inside look at a few of the sessions we got to visit:
First, we swung by the Miller Club for Dr. Holly Spooner’s presentation on equine exercise physiology. The MTSU Horse Science professor provided a riveting presentation on why the horse makes such a phenomenal athlete. We already know that Thoroughbreds routinely run at 40 mph over distances, while Quarter Horses sprint as fast as 55 mph – but it’s the biomechanical design of the horse’s legs that enables it to attain such high speeds. Like a “pogo stick,” the horse’s lower leg is composed of elastic tendons that turn it into a coil of energy, springing the horse into action with each stride.

Other ways the horse boosts its athletic prowess include respiration locomotion coupling and “natural blood-doping.” At the canter and gallop, the horse’s body couples each stride with a breath (for a ratio of 1:1) through a “visceral piston.” At speed, the horse’s body acts like a billows: as the horse stretches out, its gut retreats, making room for the lungs to expand with air. As the horse’s underline contracts to finish a stride, its gut crowds forward into the diaphragm and lungs, forcing the horse to exhale. This action allows the horse to attain respiration rates as high as 130-140 breaths per minute. The horse can also drastically increase its red blood cell counts during exercise. When the horse exercises, its spleen contracts, forcing stored excess red blood cells into the bloodstream. More red blood cells equal more oxygen, which equals an increased ability to perform.

After Dr. Spooner’s lecture, we headed downstairs to the East Arena to learn about the basics of improving gait in gaited horses from clinician Larry Whitesell, a gaited horseman of international renown. During his clinic, titled “Improving Gait in Gaited Horses,” Whitesell worked with three gaited horses and riders in the round pen, stressing the importance of using aids to develop suppleness in the horse.

 “When we teach a horse a movement, we want to teach him how we ask, not just how to perform the movement,” Whitesell said. “If you ask more strongly, all you get is an increase in tension, not an increase in skill or ability. Ask with a light, soft aid, and look for little movements, rather than big ones.”

Whitesell stressed that there is no equipment that can teach a horse to gait. Instead, he said it’s all about developing the horse’s natural abilities with conditioning and supportive exercises.

 “If you tell me you can’t get your horse to gait, I’ll ask, ‘Did you develop the muscles in your horse that make him gait? Or did you just ask him to gait?’” Whitesell said.

Then we followed one of the gaited horses from Whitesell’s clinic over to the West Arena, where Dr. Vear performed a chiropractic demonstration. Every week, Dr. Vear splits his practice in Gallatin, Tennessee, adjusting humans three days a week and adjusting horses, dogs, and even dairy cattle the other three days a week.

 “Like people, the horse possesses a brain, spinal cord, and nerves,” Dr. Vear said. “Chiropractic work involves assessing micro- and macro-traumas, such as misalignment of the vertebra, that can alter function and even cause lameness and back pain.”
Dr. Vear proceeded to adjust the horse before a small crowd of onlookers, detailing exercises and stretches that horse owners can do at home to maintain a horse’s “spinal hygiene.”

Next, we trotted into the Coliseum to witness headliner Dan James’ session on the importance of using progression in riding bareback and bridleless. Using one of his own horses to demonstrate, James performed a series of reining maneuvers – first, with normal tack; then by removing the bridle and adding a simple collar around the base of the horse’s neck; then by removing all the tack, performing large and small circles and sliding stops, bareback and bridleless.

“Stick to a program and learn how to achieve your goals,” James told the audience. “Spend more time with the bridle and saddle on than you spend without. I promise, if you can’t do it with the saddle and bridle on first, you won’t be able to do it bareback and bridleless.” James finished his demo by riding backwards at the canter and sliding stop.

Finally, we watched Bobby Richards dissect the gait, quality, and character of several two-year-olds in training as he discussed four classes commonly found in any Tennessee Walking Horse show: country pleasure, trail pleasure, lite-shod, and park pleasure.

“Every class entails a different kind of shoe, and different shoes equal a different style of horse. But no matter which class you’re showing in, the basic elements don’t change,” Richards said. “You want the horse moving its shoulders and head, shifting its weight to its hindquarters, and over-striding.”

While the unfortunate weather caused a significant drop in attendance, the 2015 Southern Equine Expo didn’t fail to deliver plenty of entertaining and informative clinics, a wide variety of vendors, and tons of lectures, demos, and competitions. Check out and make plans to attend next year’s Southern Equine Expo.

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